Suicide is Not a Veteran-Only Issue


In the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there was much said about young soldiers returning with PTSD, unable to cope with the return. So as you visualize a young soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, consider this:

Handfuls of recent studies, published in JAMA Psychiatry and elsewhere, reveal that the majority of veterans who committed suicide in the past decade weren’t those veterans who had spent much if any time in Iraq and Afghanistan, weren’t those who had been in combat, (only 10 percent of service members have seen actual combat in these conflicts), and weren’t typically 20-somethings.

According to the VA’s latest, most extensive report of veteran suicide, in 2014 ... older veterans aged 50 and over made up about two-thirds of all veteran deaths by suicide, 65 percent.

Statistically speaking, while suicide rose dramatically between 1999 and 2014, the increases were notable for both men and women and for people of every age up to 75 years old, and while the rate among teenage girls (10-14) tripled over that period, and the age-adjusted rate for males was more than three times that for females, the largest rate of suicide increase was among people aged 35-64.

What are the causes? Part of it is substance abuse, depression, other mental health disorders, and notably loneliness, possibly due to increased social fragmentation.

Rebecca Burgess, director of the Project on American Citizenship, says social fragmentation hits veterans especially hard.

If family is the initial society in which we gain social identity and security—the narrative of who we are and how we go about our life—and the military unit is the intense tribal equivalent, then the sense of extreme alienation some veterans feel on transitioning back into the civilian world is a difference of degrees from the individual who’s lost the narrative of his life due to weak, maybe nonexistent social connections.

Burgess argues that society makes it worse by depicting veterans as an exotic "tribe apart," and media compound it by "dwelling on the mode of death, and equating the suicide to a combat fatality complete with its own heroics."

And where suicide has a strange "social" quality about it, in that networks of people tend to catch onto a suicidal trend, military units are a microcosm of these social networks with an "enhanced vulnerability on this score."

Burgess suggests society as a whole stop glamorizing or fixating on the “broken veteran” narrative, calling it "as counterproductive as pretending that mental health disorders and suicidal veterans do not exist."

Suicide is a societal problem that a military drawn from and returning to that society will not escape. Yet despite the growing rates of suicide within American society as a whole, it remains a relatively rare event, making it notoriously tricky for epidemiologists and others to make official pronouncements about because of all the caveats in their studies.

This only emphasizes the grave disservice we do to those who have served if we constantly imply that they are inevitably broken by their time in the military; and, more gravely, by such a narrative, give a perverse internal legitimacy to those in need of help but who choose instead to take their own life.